Thursday, 28 July 2011

Luckiest Kid In Detroit

I still believe I was the luckiest kid in all of Detroit that May of 1959.  That’s how it felt to me walking into a virtual wonderland of music at Berry Gordy’s flat at 1719 Gladstone in Detroit’s inner city.  When Berry hired me I was an 18-year-old white Jewish kid in an all-black company where people my age were making music and history.  He put me in charge of record promotion for the songs published by his Jobete Music Company and I thought I was in heaven.

My primary job was to get the records played on the radio, especially by white disk jockeys on mainstream radio stations.  I certainly wasn’t going to ignore the black DJs, some of whom - like Larry Dean and Bill Williams - quickly became my closest friends.  Berry had given me the job because I was able to get Larry Dixon, a DJ on Detroit’s WCHB, to play a god-awful record by Mike Powers called “Teenage Sweetheart” that Berry’s Rayber Music Writing Company had produced and recorded for a $100 fee.  I still think it is the absolute worst record Berry has ever produced.

When I applied for a promotion job with Berry, he had given me the virtually impossible task of getting that record played on the radio before he would consider hiring me.  Eager to get rid of me, he was convinced he would never see me again once I left his flat with the Powers disk in hand.  But it was my good luck that after four hours of begging and pleading in the hot sun, Dixon gave it a spin on the Memorial Day holiday at the very time that Berry was listening to the station in his car.  That was also the only time that record was ever played on the radio.  That accomplishment was enough to get me hired the very next day for $15 a week and all the chilli I could eat - cooked and served by Miss Lillie Hart.

Berry has always had a reputation for being a tough negotiator, but I got the best of him that day.  I worked for Jobete, Rayber, the fledgling five-month-old Tamla Record Company, and the then-personal management entity of Berry Gordy Jr. Enterprises.  Motown was still more than a year in the future.

It didn’t take me long to realize that I was surrounded by geniuses in that cramped little flat.  In addition to Berry and his future wife, Raynoma Liles, there was Bill “Smokey” Robinson and the Miracles, Eddie Holland, Marv Johnson, Barrett Strong, Robert Bateman and a house-full of now-legendary talented songwriters, performers and musicians, all of whom welcomed me as a member of the family.

I was often a source of great amusement to my new co-workers.  Robert Bateman still remembers my refusal to ride in the company’s old Volkswagen bus because it was German and still associated in my mind with Nazis.  But political correctness didn’t stop me from showing up at work wearing one of my mother’s white sheets to promote a record, totally oblivious to the image of the white sheet-wearing Ku Klux Klan who were still terrorizing American blacks in that pre-Civil Rights era.  Berry and the others quickly became my surrogate family with Berry assuming the role of my knowing older brother.  I will be eternally indebted to him for some of the truly valuable knowledge he imparted that summer.

My responsibilities soon expanded to include writing the first Jobete and Tamla advertisements for Billboard, Cashbox, and the other music trade publications, writing artist biographies and liner notes and getting favorable mentions and stories about us into print.  That quickly became my favorite endeavor and eventually I gladly abdicated my record promotion responsibilities to others so that I could fully concentrate upon publicity and press relations.

I traveled with the Miracles, Barrett Strong, and even did a short stint as road manager of the legendary Satintones.  Returning from a road trip to Cleveland where we had gone to see Jackie Wilson perform, I co-wrote the lyrics with Berry and two of my colleagues for “I Love The Way You Love” which became a hit record for Marv Johnson.

I also did my share of mischief, once convincing Janie Bradford to answer phone calls for our Miracle subsidiary label with the greeting, “Good morning! If it’s a hit, it’s a Miracle.”  Berry was not amused.

Somewhat later, I guaranteed that I would never again be invited to attend a Quality Control meeting by suggesting that we re-record Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar” as “Isn’t That Peculiar” in order not to offend English teachers across America.  Well, at least I never forgot the words to our Smokey Robinson-penned company song whenever Berry called upon me to do a solo before the meeting began.  Who can ever forget those immortal lyrics, “Oh we have a very swinging company…”  But my ultimate goal was to tell the world through newspapers and magazines about the real ‘Miracle’ on Detroit’s West Grand Boulevard...and that’s what I was happiest doing.

That is what this book is all about.